PITTSBURGH (TNS) — Hoping the political tides in Harrisburg have changed, two state lawmakers from Allegheny County are pushing a bill that would legalize recreational marijuana for adult use, expunge records of marijuana-related offenses and give underserved communities a stake in the industry.
State Reps. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, and Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, said they plan to introduce legislation to make Pennsylvania the 17th state to legalize marijuana, an effort they’ve been pursuing for about half a decade to little success.
That’s because Democrats haven’t gotten enough buy-in from the Republicans, who control Harrisburg, but the two lawmakers said they think they’re getting “closer and closer” to a time when everyone wants recreational marijuana to be a regulated, taxed market.
“It’s becoming even more clear that we must regulate cannabis, not only for social justice reasons, but also to ensure the quality of the product,” Frankel, the Democratic chair of the House Health Committee, said this week. “With this legislation, we will bring the cultivation of cannabis into the light where we can make sure that harmful pesticides don’t compromise the health of its users.”
The bill would make it legal for anyone 21 and older in Pennsylvania to purchase and use recreational marijuana, the revenue — at least part of which — will be used to establish grant programs to “benefit small, minority and women-owned businesses,” according to a release.
Outlawing marijuana and hyper-criminalizing the use of it, Frankel said, has harmed communities of color, failed to protect public health and prevented Pennsylvania from a significant revenue source. This bill can begin to “repair the historical harms and reap the benefits” of adult-use cannabis, he added.
Brandon Flood, secretary of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, praised provisions in the bill that would automatically expunge marijuana-related offenses from criminal records and release anyone confined for such an offense.
Flood said that although some may think few are incarcerated for marijuana use, Pennsylvania permits a marijuana conviction to effectively stack on top of a previous conviction and lead to tougher penalties, including imprisonment.
Wheatley said many on the other side of the aisle have opposed recreational marijuana because they’re waiting for Congress to act, or that they need to see more evidence of its impacts or that they’re concerned about what it would do to the medical program. But he said he thinks they’re getting “closer and closer,” and that lawmakers are noticing that a majority of Pennsylvanians — in polling — support the policy change.
In February, state Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, became the first Republican in the chamber to sign onto a bill legalizing recreational marijuana. In a statement, he said the bill would ensure that “a legalized market in the Commonwealth is implemented safely and responsibly, with a thoughtful approach that provides opportunities to medical and recreational consumers, farmers, and small, medium and minority-owned businesses.”
Laughlin and Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, noted at the time that many states had already made the move, and that the Pennsylvania Independent Fiscal Office estimated the move could generate between $400 million and $1 billion of new tax revenue.
Earlier this year, Spotlight PA reported that there was no political appetite among Republicans in Harrisburg to take up recreational marijuana. House Speaker Bryan Cutler’s chief of staff told the outlet the issue wasn’t a priority, and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, told The York Daily Record there isn’t support in the GOP caucus.
The House Democrats said their bill makes it a point to allow people in communities that have long been disproportionately impacted by the criminalization of marijuana to participate in the recreational marijuana industry.
Applauding the bill was Amber Littlejohn, director of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, who said that equitable reform would mean impacted communities seeing reinvestment from the revenue, people who are in jail released and barriers removed for communities to participate in the legal market.
“Pennsylvania was the first state to actually include social equity in their medical cannabis program, and they still remain only one of two,” Littlejohn said, “and so Pennsylvania really has the opportunity to build on that and the commitment to equity that we’ve seen in the medical program.”
It’s been five years since Pennsylvania passed medical marijuana, and according to Gov. Tom Wolf’s office in a statement earlier this year to mark the anniversary, more than 550,000 patients and caregivers were registered to obtain medical marijuana for serious medical conditions.
Wolf supports legalizing recreational marijuana, a shift in opinion he made in 2019. At the time, he said most of the state’s residents support the policy, calling on the legislature to decriminalize small amounts and to allow expungement of past convictions, according to The Associated Press.
His lieutenant governor, John Fetterman, has been one of the most vocal advocates for legalizing marijuana — something he’s carried into his run for the U.S. Senate. He launched his campaign, in part, on a vow to help “dismantle” the war on drugs and legalize recreational weed.
One of Mr. Fetterman’s opponents in the Democratic primary, State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, joined the two state lawmakers at their Tuesday press conference. He didn’t speak.